What is the responsibility of universities to KTT? Reflections from the 4th Annual Knowledge Exchange Day / Réflexions sur la responsabilité des universités envers la MdC, à la suite de la 4e Journée sur l’échange des connaissances

Anne Bergen, RIR-Guelph
The following post first appeared on the Knowledge Exchange Day blog and is reposted here with permission.
Ce récit a été publié la première fois sur le site Knowledge Exchange Day blog. Il est repris ici avec permission.

What is the responsibility of universities to KTT? We could first consider what doesn’t work well: academia with a focus on basic research within traditional disciplinary silos and isolated from research stakeholders and end-users. Moreover, training students at the undergraduate and graduate level to prioritize sharing information and knowledge with other academics is unlikely to lead to KTT impact. Similarly, we can reduce research impact by keeping universities as islands in their larger community, eliminating funding for field work or community-engaged teaching and learning, and ensuring research questions are always developed by researchers alone (probably in a windowless basement office).
I’m writing from the 4th Annual Knowledge Exchange Day (aka “Knowledge Share Fair”) hosted by the OMAF & MRA and University of Guelph KTT partnership. A theme symposium this morning has been the shrinking number of actors working within knowledge systems related to agrifood. That is, we have fewer farmers, and fewer funded agricultural extension programs. We have learned that knowledge “doesn’t flow automatically” and that a healthy knowledge system needs continual care and feeding. We know that we need new ways of engaging in extension and KTT work, but we also need to recognize that there is no quick fix to these problems. KTT work is often slow, messy, and labour intensive. Worse, KTT is notoriously hard to evaluate to demonstrate “value” and observable systems-level impacts may take years. A necessary condition to successful KTT is interpersonal relationships. For KTT success, as one apple grower stated, “the value of face to face contact with end-users cannot be overstated”.
Midmorning, we gathered around small tables to discuss topics of common interest. At the “Universities’ Responsibilities and KTT” table, we talked about how to move from research to application, and how universities can facilitate this process. A message that came across clearly was that solving KTT problems require multidisciplinary efforts: we need to build spaces and time for conversations and crossing disciplinary and industry boundaries. Universities are a place where multiple forms of knowledge and inquiry are housed within a single institution. As one Masters of Engineering student pointed out, universities have a unique opportunity and therefore a unique responsibility to be able to host and convene multidisciplinary KTT efforts, moving from basic research to applicable research to application.
Should universities be multi-disciplinary KTT convenors? This is not how universities have traditionally operated, but everything we know about KTT tells us that complex problems cannot be solved in disciplinary isolation. Can universities be multi-disciplinary KTT convenors? Of course, and some are already moving in this direction. More substantive change may require researchers valuing KTT research and practice, and being rewarded for their KTT efforts. In addition, this would require changes to student training in many disciplines. New initiatives in cross-disciplinary training (e.g., partnerships between engineering and public health programs to address climate change) are a good starting place, but there are tensions between the slow speed of KTT work and student timelines that remain unresolved. Yet, the theme of the KE Day is that these are worthwhile changes to university practice, even if change is difficult.
For students, learning how to build relationships and partnerships with research users and stakeholders yields transferrable skills in project and relationship management. When these students leave the university, they are better versed in communication and outreach, and in integrating research, policy, and practice than students without KTT training. Students who take part in KTT projects are also more likely to be part of interdisciplinary networks on and off campus, and to value KTT as a standard practice.
The responsibility of the university to KTT is to look at evidence about how KTT training and practice can be facilitated. The university needs to engage with stakeholders, to listen to evidence about the needs of research users, faculty, and students and try to set policy that supports meaningful KTT practice.